It has been 12 years since the last expenses scandal rocked Parliament and last week Boris Johnson was forced to defend its reputation once again, stressing that the UK is not "remotely a corrupt country".
This followed the revelations regarding Owen Paterson and his paid lobbying and Sir Geoffrey Cox QC’s lucrative second job providing legal advice, on some occasions from his office in the House of Commons.
The media storm which followed has forced the Prime Minister to initiate some embarrassing procedural flip flops to reverse out of his initial position that the standards system was fit for purpose and the views of the Standards Committee which endorsed the report of the Standards Commissioner should be rejected.
The latest development in this saga have seen the Government and the Opposition trying to outdo each other in their proposed restrictions on MPs' second jobs.
The question we in LLG are pondering is whether this renewed focus on the need for augmenting the rules on ethical standards in central government will spill over into local government where, for the past two years, we have been awaiting the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
As a reflection of our members’ views LLG have been calling for appropriate sanctions at the local level since 2019 when the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its ‘ethical standards review’. The report contained 26 recommendations including giving authorities the power to suspend councillors for up to 6 months without allowances.
LLG have longstanding concerns that the local Standards Regime lacks teeth and as a result is ineffective in constraining the very small number of councillors who persist in breaching the accepted standards of conduct for those in public office through serious misconduct and/or repetitive, low-level misconduct, which erodes public confidence in local government. It is important to stress that the vast majority of councillors carry out their roles supporting their communities whilst maintaining high levels of ethical conduct and as a result, our system of local governance is recognised as one of the best in the world.
As a result of the 2019 CSPL report we have seen the development of the LGA’s Model Code of Conduct, including subsequent guidance to the code and guidance on complaints handling. But there remains a question mark over what stance the government intends to take on the CSPL recommendations regarding sanctions.
Lord Evans, Chair of the CSPL, on publishing ‘Upholding Standards in Public Life (Standards Matter 2) Report’, this month expressed the committee’s views that:
“It is time to place more of the ethics regulators dealing with ministerial interests, public appointments and business appointments for former office holders onto a statutory footing giving them clearer accountability and greater independence from the executive they regulate”
The issue of a clear statutory footing for those charged with enforcing the rules is also an issue in local government where the Monitoring Officer is tasked with maintaining high standards of ethical conduct but given little in the way of sanctions to back this up or protection against those whose conduct they are required to regulate. In England, between 2001 until 2015, beyond suspension on full pay for a limited period of up to two months, any disciplinary action against a Monitoring Officer had to be recommended by a Designated Independent Person (DIP) appointed to investigate with the decision to dismiss approved by full council. These protections were removed in 2015 and replaced by a diluted provision which lacks independence leaving the Monitoring Officer at the mercy of the largest political group.
Given the tensions which can arise between the statutory officers and councillors as demonstrated in recent best value and public interest reports there is a compelling argument that the three Statutory Officers must be empowered to speak truth to power, with confidence in the knowledge any adverse reaction will be subject to independent scrutiny.
Quentin Baker is President of LLG.